“There’s still light inside of him”
First thing’s first: there’s probably spoilers in this review. Because let’s face it, anything besides me plainly stating that I loved it is construed as a spoiler to a fandom as intense as that of George Lucas‘ Star Wars saga. Will I go into lineages and deaths? No. Does J.J. Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan, and Michael Arndt‘s script seem to care about keeping such things secret in the context of this return adventure? No. But I’ll still leave it for their intuitive and refreshingly blunt delivery of those facts to open yours eyes to the reality that good storytelling doesn’t need twists. Some might still be on the horizon, but the filmmakers are much more interested in simply welcoming us back where Star Wars: The Force Awakens is concerned.
They do so with style too as we’re thrust right in the middle of a new rebellion during the opening crawl. It’s been thirty years since Return of the Jedi and for some reason the galaxy remains susceptible to having evil reign. There’s no explanation for when this supposed coup occurred for Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis doing his best Gollum meets Thanos hologram trick) of the First Order to take control and render the good guys into the Resistance again, but there’s always room for a prequel trilogy to the sequel trilogy to show us. All we know for sure is that Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is in a self-imposed exile and the rebellion needs to find him in order to stand a chance.
The Resistance’s best fighter pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is sent to the Jakku desert to retrieve a map despite the First Order tailing him. A fight breaks out, the map is placed in the care of a droid (cute little BB-8), and dark side waving Darth Vader stand-in Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is left empty handed. By virtue of finding the robotic “BB” orb, the task to ensuring this clue gets into the right hands falls upon a Stormtrooper with a crisis of conscience named Finn (John Boyega) and a scavenger known as Rey (Daisy Ridley). If only they knew the choices they’ve made to converge at a barter market trading food for scrap metal would bring them into a world they can’t begin to understand.
From here the journey mirrors many story beats of A New Hope‘s (Episode IV) original only without the mysteries Empire Strikes Back would reveal. There’s the boy and girl team of unsure good, the conflicted evil fighting between two lives, and the looming planet destroyer doubling as a base of operations for the First Order (with atmosphere and weather rather than the Death Star’s metal exterior). Good and evil have a new bond, a “master” waits in the wings a la Yoda, and Admiral Akbar and Nien Nunb somehow are shown still going strong at the rebellion’s command center with their radar systems and war room tactics. As Han Solo (Harrison Ford) says to Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) when they step foot on the Millennium Falcon, we are home.
That was Abrams’ mission and it was accomplished. Whereas the prequel trilogy merged fan service and reverse engineering to mixed results, J.J. and team have deftly chosen to go a subtler route here. Fan service is unavoidable with Ford and Carrie Fisher (General Leia) signed on, but it’s also a key plot point when you consider how the “force” works. A couple quips here and there about trash compactors and the like bring a smirk to your face while goofy reaction shots to the extreme temper of Kylo Ren provides belly laughs more akin to those in Spaceballs than Star Wars. And that’s okay because humor is a big part in winning an audience over. They take advantage and never go too far thanks to their fish-out-of-water heroes.
I think the most positive thing I can say is that my sold out screening didn’t erupt into a communal release of excitement when something “cool” reminded us of the past. I feared this greatly since the fanbase amps up for the littlest things. Not even the discovery of Luke’s lightsaber got them going because it arrived with a mystery in the form of a visual history that will surely be explained in Episode VIII. This is a credit to the filmmakers for never going the easy way out by relying on anticipation to achieve success. They’ve realized an effective story is the goal and while this entry must be expository to reacclimatize us, it simultaneously leaves a few breadcrumbs to move us forward.
There are a lot of new characters to get used to, but it’s not too bad considering so many seem familiar from the get-go. Some like Gwendoline Christie‘s Captain Phasma are underutilized and almost non-starters with room for larger roles in the future. Some like Domhnall Gleeson‘s General Hux, Driver’s Kylo Ren, and Serkis’ Snoke are veritable carbon copies of Grand Moff Tarkin, Vader, and Sidious—not a slight, just an observation. If anything I like the mirroring because it fits the tone Lucas introduced in 1977 with a loving touch of nostalgia much like Creed did for Rocky earlier this year. Lupita Nyong’o‘s diminutive CGI-built Maz Kanata is a welcome edition with room to grow in importance and Ford/Fisher arrive as though no time was lost.
But as the original trilogy survived on the shoulders of its main trio of heroes, The Force Awakens does as well. Thankfully they are equal to the task. Isaac’s Poe is surprisingly not in the film very much and mostly in action sequences at that, but both Boyega and Ridley prove perfectly suited to the challenge. His Finn is a brilliant ball of energy and enthusiasm—a newborn baby whose eyes have opened to a world he never knew possible. A slave who has chosen the path of righteousness, he surprises himself every time he does something successfully. Utterly affable, modestly uncertain of his own capabilities, and charismatic enough to verbally spar with the smug Han Solo: it’s impossible not to love him.
While he and Driver show the capacity for inner struggle and personal demons, however, it’s Ridley who exudes the innocent genius Luke did decades ago. She’s strong, smart, and way beyond what anyone would assume a poor scavenger waiting for her family to return would prove. What’s interesting and new—and possibly the best part of the film—is that she too has anger inside. It may not be strong enough to push her to Kylo Ren’s side, but it does lead into a brutal lightsaber battle that delivers a volatile climax foreshadowing things to come. The movie and Rey both do this with expert precision. And while the former didn’t “wow” me as much as the latter, I’m finally chopping at the bit for more Star Wars.
Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 135 minutes | Release Date: December 18th, 2015 (USA)
Studio: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Director(s): J.J. Abrams
Writer(s): Lawrence Kasdan & J.J. Abrams and Michael Arndt / George Lucas (characters)